The art of the critique, Part 2: Making “post-mortems” work

The pages of The Villages Daily Sun are attention-grabbing, and the subject of lots of internal critique, before and after publication.

Feedback after publication has its rewards, if done right

(Second of two parts. For the first part, focusing on “pre-mortem” critiques, visit this link.)

It’s been a while since I’ve helped manage a daily newsroom, so, for my two-part series on what works and what doesn’t in newsroom critiques, I thought I’d reach out to Bonita Burton, Executive Editor of The Villages Daily Sun in Florida, for a view from the front lines. The Sun is a 44,000-circulation newspaper, robust and yes, growing (thanks, retirees!), and in recent years Bonita has carved out an expanded role for visual journalism in the newsroom. The payoff? The paper was named one of 12 finalists earlier this year for World’s Best-Designed Newspaper, in the annual competition of the Society for News Design. Here Bonita shares thoughts on my preference for “pre-mortem” critique, and offers lots of specifics about how “post-mortem” works in her newsroom, too. – Ron Reason

By Bonita Burton 

I prefer “pre-mortems” as well. I hate the morning-after “critique,” when it’s too late to make improvements, and the final gatekeepers are typically not even in the office yet to explain their decision-making. Here’s what we do instead – it doesn’t always lead to brilliance, but the hope is it does elevate the report AND morale.

Instead of surface-level feedback like “I like your use of white space” or “That’s a neat color palette,” we always try to focus the conversation around three core values (which we call “ICE”):

1) Innovation: Creative thinking that helps find a better way for unconventional approaches that give readers surprises.

2) Community: Storytelling that advances a feeling that our readers matter.

3) Excellence: Work that defines the high-end of what’s possible.

Here’s a timetable of the different ways we provide feedback:

Daily: We print out all section fronts for a huddle about 5:00 – when both shifts are present – and we start with one question: “How can we make this better before we push the button?”

Bonita Burton, Executive Editor, Villages Daily Sun.

This is an avenue for “pre-mortem” critique. In addition, we have a number of “post-mortem” opportunities aimed at skills development for our journalists and improving quality of the paper for readers:

Daily: A rotation of managing editors sends a newsroom-wide email each morning titled “Best Thing in Today’s Paper,” celebrating something that went right in accordance with those core values, instead of picking at things that went wrong. My thinking with this feature is that it trains top editors to look for what’s good.

Weekly: A rotation of senior staffers from all teams sends a weekly “Backstory” newsroom-wide email that explores in detail the way something successful came to be. My thinking with this feature is that it trains senior staffers to move between teams to find out how their colleagues in other disciplines are getting ahead. And it teaches them to deliver feedback in a meaningful way as they pursue a path into management.

Every Friday I write a handwritten note or two to an employee who really impressed me. Not everyone likes the big recognition in front of a crowd, and the personal touch seems to really resonate. I’ve seen these notes hung up on several desk bulletin boards. My assistant reminds me to do this each week because frankly, if I’m not deliberate about it, I often forget.

Monthly: I hold a monthly communication meeting with my entire staff of 65 that always has a feedback component about our progress as a whole. If there’s an area we’re really dragging in, we’ll conduct an activity (such as a mock press conference) to drive the point home.

Quarterly: I conduct a portfolio review for every staffer – writers and visual journalists – in which they are required to submit at least 10 of their strongest efforts from the past three months. My thinking with this feature is that it forces a feedback conversation with a supervisor about your body of work over time – to coach for patterns and trends instead of the day-to-day. Also, this aids in collecting contest entries throughout the year instead of all at once at year’s end. We display the work on banquet tables down the aisle of our newsroom for everyone passing through to see. We then celebrate with our “ICE” awards at that month’s communication meeting. The managers nominate and vote as a group for an employee who demonstrates each core value. They read a nice write-up about them, which is framed on a wall with a professional portrait and they each get $100. We also select one employee who demonstrates all three core values that quarter, and they get $150.

Yearly: I organize a “newsroom olympics” each summer with fun team-building activities that loosely connect to these values. For example, this summer we are totally doing this! It’s all about accuracy, right?

None of this is to say that I’m not guilty of the dreaded editor drive-by, or that I miss a lot of opportunities to reward hard work. But I always say that if you can’t relax, you can’t create. And I’m with you that the right atmosphere of criticism that nurtures and teaches is really important.

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